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Four days in Tokyo

January 3, 2011

I celebrated the new year this year in Tokyo with four intense days of exploring the world’s largest metropolitan area. Tokyo is a magnificent, modern city that is impeccably clean and safe – characteristics that will surely confound any non-Japanese visitor to the city. The architecture and urban design are breathtaking and feature the quintessential minimalist aesthetic that permeates Japanese culture. Tokyo is at the vanguard of modernity as the city was completely rebuilt in the second half of the last century after obliteration at the hands of American air-bombing squads. The greater Tokyo metropolitan area is home to nearly 35 million people, slightly more than one quarter of the nation’s population, and is the largest economic center in the world, surpassing even New York City. A unique feature of the city is its sheer geographical size composed of the 23 special wards, which together combine to form a seemingly endless concrete horizon that envelops the Kanto region and is easily visible from space via satellite images. Some of the things I did and places I visited: meticulously explored on foot the youthfully-vibrant Shibuya district with its bustling scrambled crosswalk, quirky love hotels, maze of clothing outlets full of well-heeled fashionistas; strolled through the uber-chique Omotesando dori in Harajuku lined with elegant designer label boutiques; meandered solemnly through the Meiji Shrine (Tokyo’s largest) and paid homage to the Emperor who gave birth to the modern Japanese nation; reverently perused the grounds housing the Yoyogi National Gymnasium designed by towering Japanese architect Kenzo Tange for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics; went to the top of the Sunshine 60 building to take in the staggering views of the gray landscape that is Tokyo and its sprawling environs; sampled delicious unagi, soba, Kyushu white-broth ramen, takoyaki and sushi of course; spent a chilly evening relaxing at an onsen near the cavernous Tokyo Dome; meandered through Tokyo’s waterfront area – Odaiba (an artificial island in Tokyo Bay) – at night and stood transfixed looking up at Tange’s whimsical Fuji Television Building; drove across the 0.8km-long Rainbow Bridge from Odaiba and then through the neon-lit streets of Tokyo at night in an Alfa Romeo 159; went to the top of the Yokohama Landmark Tower (Japan’s tallest building); visited the futuristic Roppongi Hills and its Mori Art Museum with existentialist exhibition by Odani Motohiko; walked through Yokohama’s lively Chinatown and glittering Minato Mirai 21 waterfront area; celebrated the new year with a Catholic ceremony at St. Mary’s Cathedral (designed by Kenzo Tange in 1963) near Ikebukuro; explored the business district of Shinjuku and viewed the city’s horizon yet again from the 47th floor of the posh Keio Plaza Hotel while also mesmerized by the Mode Gakuen Cocoon Tower; paid a trip on new year’s day to the overflowing Yasukuni Shrine which houses the souls of Japan’s 2.4 million war dead; strolled through the manicured gardens of the Imperial Palace in central Tokyo site of the Emperor’s residence; stared starry-eyed at the bright neon-lights of the Akihabara electronic district and relived nostalgically some memories of my childhood at the video-game arcades; reveled in the glamor of the Ginza district; briefly visited Ueno Park in the northeast of the city that is the site of a multitude of educational and cultural institutions and pondered the legacy of Saigo Takamori; visited the majestic Senso-ji Buddhist temple in Asakusa; and finally paid a visit to my host family in the outskirts of Tokyo for a celebration of the new year involving local delicacies all the while getting very familiar with Tokyo’s vast and staggeringly dense subway system. My journey was immeasurably enhanced with the tireless curiosity and ceaseless generosity of my Japanese guide and friend, Keisuke Fukasawa, who was born and raised in Tokyo and was happy to show me around. I traveled to Tokyo from Kyoto aboard the magical Shinkansen (Tokaido line) that sped at a blistering 300 km/h on carefully constructed linear tracks in a pleasant 2.5 hour journey. The high-tech Shinkansen bored gracefully through numerous mountain tunnels and swept past majestic Mount Fuji on one side and the turquoise, undulating waters of the Pacific on the other. Japan has left me awestruck.

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